• Stuart White

Scene-by-scene checklist

I was writing down all the things I usually check when I write/edit a scene and I expanded and kept writing, then turned it into a long Twitter thread…however for the sake of compactness and ease of reading, I'm going to post this here.


I’ve been struggling with a scene I’m writing, so I decided to go back to my basic scene-by-scene checklist.

Now, when I outline a whole story, you write about the big arcs in terms of plot, character development, stakes, conflict, obstacles, goals, etc etc.

And it’s not that different with a scene, I’ve learned, just on a much smaller scale. Much more qualified and competent people have written about this before, but here’s my checklist.

  1. Wants/Goals - What does the character want? Every scene needs to have your character wanting something. That thing can change scene-by-scene. Or it can remain constant throughout. But like goal setting, as well as long term goals, you need short term ones to reach it. So small scene goals really help for me. Like Frodo has a big goal of destroying the Ring but his small, scene goal might just be to evade the Ringwraiths or get to Rivendell, or Bree.

  2. Conflict/obstacles - How can I stop the character getting it? Stories where the character gets what they want too easily are dull. So, every scene needs to either stop the MC or at least stall them or make it very tough to achieve their goal. It there is no resistance in a scene, it becomes low stakes and you risk losing your reader. Frodo is constantly pursued and often has to go round about routes to get where he is going. His obstacles are plenty, both in the form on the enemy, or natural obstacles like weather/geography, or best yet – those which affect him or those around him personally – when he is stabbed by the Morgul knife, suddenly the stakes are higher because the obstacle is more personal.

  3. Personalise – How can I make what they want or what’s stopping them more personal? By making it more personal, we increase the emotional stakes and therefore are more likely to connect with the reader, who exhibits feelings of empathy, having hopefully felt the same thing at some point. We can all understand why Frodo wants to abandon the Fellowship – he wants to keep them out of danger - that’s a powerful emotional moment because he can all relate to be parted from those closest to us.

  4. Dialogue – what do my characters NEED to say to each other? Avoid the fluffy, non-essential stuff – I focus purely on what they have to say. And everything they say must move the story forward, increase the stakes/conflict or develop the character in some way.

  5. Movement and Surroundings. What is happening and where are we? This is so important, particularly for Fantasy, which I write. It’s easy to get lost in your own story world and forget to add in the details, to make the picture clearer for the reader. The characters do not exist in a five-metre radius bubble as the story is happening, there is a whole world around them. I try to think about how the world can interact with them, of course while not stalling the story. Texture, context and details all add to the richness of the world and therefore the story. I am particularly poor at this when first drafting, so try to think of this more and more at the outlining stage. I imagine I am the character – I do 360 degrees turn and I jot down anything of note. How can I integrate that into story and not bog it done, but enhance it? If I can, I’ll do it. If not, it stays in my imagination.

  6. Character development/Change – how is my character going to change in this scene? As well as an overall character arc for the novel, the character needs to be continually on a path towards this, and small changes need to occur, so we can believe the big change that is eventually going to happen in our MC. This is a hard one to do, but my rule is this – if my character doesn’t develop in some way in this scene, should I keep the same? If the answer is no, then no! I’ve had so many fun/cool scenes for this current novel, that I’ve had to leave out as it just doesn’t do enough to move the story or the character forward.

  7. Second/third/fourth tier emotions – what emotions do I want my characters and my readers to express and feel? This is super important for me, as I need to think about the connection between my MC and reader here. We’ve all had the rejections which say ‘I just didn’t connect with the MC’, right? Well, I’ve had loads from previous books. So how to sort that? Well, we need to look beyond the surface of primary emotions. I’ve read a lot of books/blogs etc on storytelling and connection and they all agree that primary emotions like anger, fear, happiness, sadness etc are not going to help connect the reader to the MC, as it’s too generic, too bland, too unemotional. We need to really delve deep into our characters psyche in the scene – okay, so Frodo wants to leave his friends – how does he feel? Scared – sure. Sad – defo’s! But is that enough – no, this is a big emotional moment and we want the reader to really feel this. So what’s beneath that fear and sadness, well it’s bravery, it’s recklessness, it’s will-power beyond measure, to go from the security of the Fellowship to carrying out the task alone. Frodo has overcome that fear and sadness because a much stronger but less obvious emotion is flooding through him – love. He loves his companions. So much in fact, that he’s willing to leave, with no explanation and leave them all heart-broken because of that love. That’s what we need the reader to feel. If we are in a big fight scene, for example, the obvious emotions might be fear, anger, hate etc. But looking beyond that, the fighters are potentially worried about the embarrassment of losing, or the consequences for their surviving family that depend on the fighter for food. Or the lost pride if they lose, or regret at never declaring their love for that secret crush…or whatever! But all of those are less obvious emotions, but far more interesting and engaging for a reader and I think, easier to connect with. So, when writing a scene think beyond the obvious emotions. Dig deeper. That’s what I aim for anyway.

I’m going to stop here – there’s other stuff I look at, but I’ll save that for another time! Remember I’m not suggesting this is a best method, or even a good one – but it is mine and I find it helps me when I’m stuck with a scene.

What works for you? Feel free to give your best ideas – I promise I’ll only steal some of them!